Dhoni juggles SL series priorities with World T20 prep
Sri Lanka don't have a mystery spinner. That should be enough to stop the press, but that is not the end of the story. The cricketing shrewdness of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara has not come close to being replaced. Even Angelo Mathews and Lasith Malinga are not there and Tillakaratne Dilshan will miss the opening game of this three-T20I series. Their coach has only just taken charge. India are thus the favourites going into this World T20-preparation series, but MS Dhoni knows all too well the vagaries of the format. He knows a player can change the game in 10 balls. Win it or even lose it.
"What really happens in this format is, the difference between the sides is very narrow," Dhoni said. "What it boils down to is how good your match winners are playing. You can have only one big hitter in the side but if it's his day, he can take the game away from you. And it can happen in just 10 or 12 balls."
India have to find a mix between doing what is best for this series and what is best for the World T20. In Virat Kohli's absence, batting Suresh Raina at his beloved No. 3 is best for this series, but Dhoni is also looking at what is best for World T20.
"I think it will be slightly better if Raina bats at the position that he will most likely bat in the World Cup," Dhoni said. "It will give him that exposure. Also we are not a team that plays a lot of T20Is. Usually we play one game in a bilateral series. So this gives him an opportunity to expose him to No. 4 for a consistent period of time. The opportunity is there to make him bat at three and use some other batter [at four] but I think it will be more appropriate if he bats at No. 4 and gets adjusted."
One of the targets is to watch out against the fatigue and not peak too early, although some might say their 3-0 win in Australia was their peak. "We have quite a few targets in mind," Dhoni said. "Winning games is important. But at the same time what will be more crucial is, we have to keep everyone fit. It's almost the same 15 that will play till the World T20. It's important to keep everyone fit so that the best XI is always available for selection. That will be the key factor."
Dhoni is also aware perhaps that India's recent record in limited-overs cricket on the slower pitches of Asia hasn't been great. The batsmen haven't been as dominant as before and added to that is the slightly unusual sand-based outfield in Pune. It is slower than usual and high balls just sit in the ground. It is just as well that the straight boundaries are short, because during the practice sessions out in the middle, balls hit in the air lost all sting upon hitting the turf.
Pandurang Salgaocar, the chief groundsman, said this was a normal outfield and that the well-timed shots will travel. If he is wrong, it may well provide the much-needed balance between bat and ball if only for just one game.
Practically in the middle of nowhere, seemingly halfway to Mumbai, in conditions they have not played much IPL cricket in, India will begin their home stretch to the World T20. Shikhar Dhawan at the top of the order, Yuvraj Singh at No. 6 and Hardik Pandya as the allrounder will be the unknowns they will want to know more about.
For Dhoni, though, the Maharashtra Cricket Association stadium will now be his IPL home and he has already found comfort factors. Even before he went to the nets, he made his way to the much talked-about dog kennel. Twenty-four dogs here are part of the security team. Dhoni even wanted to adopt a golden retriever back in the day. As he waited on, the dog, Prince, settled down and made this ground his home, Dhoni might not get to take the dog away. Pune, though, has certainly taken to Dhoni.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo